Agenda item

Minutes:

In accordance with Council Procedure Rule 13, the following questions were submitted:-

 

Question 1

From Councillor Rachel Madden:

 

“Can the Portfolio Holder please outline what work was undertaken to control weeds growing in road gulleys across Ashfield District this year? Was he happy with this programme?

 

Councillor Tim Brown, Portfolio Holder for Environment, responded as follows:-

 

“Yes thank you.  Thank you for asking this question.  As you are aware Councillor Madden, Ashfield District Council maintains weeds and road gulleys in this District under a contract from Nottinghamshire County Council, Via, three times per year and that runs until March 2018.  Performance reviews are carried out annually in line with the contract and Via has expressed satisfaction with the performance of the Environmental Services, so much so that they have recently extended the contract for a further year until 2019.

 

Resident complaints regarding grass cutting and weed control significantly reduced when Ashfield took on this service in 2014 and have continued to reduce from 129 in 2015 to 108 in 2017.  Having seen a reduction in resident complaints and having had our contract extended to undertake this work I am very happy with this programme.” 

 

In accordance with Council Procedure Rule 13.5, Councillor Madden was invited to ask a supplementary question as follows:-

 

“Thank you Chairman.  In view of that response is the Portfolio Holder willing to write to the residents such as on Sandhills Road, Stonechurch View or on the Midfield Estate because I can assure you that the residents in my division that I speak to are not happy.  Thank you.” 

 

The Portfolio Holder for Environment again responded as follows:-

 

“I think as the County Councillor for those areas Councillor Madden it’s up to you to take those complaints direct back into Nottinghamshire County Council.  This Chamber is Ashfield District Council.  This is obviously a Via issue and I think you need to take it back in your County Council capacity.”

 

Question 2

From Councillor Jason Zadrozny:

 

“The current Council Leader has sanctioned a decision to spend £3,666.58, which was the cost to print and send out a mailing to all tenants about her introduction of a new 'amenity' charge.

 

The charge will look like a rent rise by the back door as the loss in the 1% rent reduction to the Council is £236,026 and the amenity charge will generate £226,464. A conveniently similar amount.

 

There are no guarantees installed by the Labour group to ensure the money generated will be spent on the things listed in the public consultation and not simply put into the general Housing Revenue or other general accounts.

 

On this basis does the Leader feel that she still has the full confidence of the entire Labour Group with her financial strategies?”

 

Councillor Cheryl Butler, Leader of the Council, responded as follows:-

 

“Thank you.  Jason you’ve done it again.  You’ve asked a closed question so really all I should give you is a closed answer which is yes I do.  However, I will discuss your preamble.

 

As a landlord we are required to consult with tenants as directed by Section 103 of the Housing Act 1985.  Therefore no sanction is needed from anyone as costs are contained within departmental budgets which are agreed annually by Full Council.  In addition, since the Royal Mail’s clean bulk mailing system was used we are expecting a further rebate on the initial quoted amount.  Evidence of our financial strategies at ADC are robust.

 

As stated on the consultation document sent to tenants, the cost being charged for these services, which do not form part of the rent exceed the amount being charged back to tenants.  The amounts are similar as the aim was to make it as cost neutral an exercise to tenants thus ensuring maximum value for money at no additional cost.  Tenants have already received two 1% rent reductions in 2015/16 and 2016/17 meaning the average rent saved after the amenity charge is introduced will be £1.49 saved per week.  Taking the highest rent in the same context these tenants will have saved £2.08 per week, about £100 saved in the whole three years.  And still a further year of 1% rent reduction to receive in 1920.

 

This has generated the Government savings to their Housing Benefits Bill but tenants haven’t really benefited from this as the vast majority are in receipt of housing benefit and therefore haven’t had to find any difference nor have they had any extra in their pocket.  You need to be aware that the total cost of services undertaken by housing which do not form part of the rent are prudently put at £348,000 per annum.  As such a further £122,000 could have legitimately been raised.  Services listed in the Tenant Consultation, it’s not a general public consultation by the way, are paid for out of the general Housing Revenue Account.  The amenity charge will also go in to that same general Housing Revenue Account.  Rent and service charges associated with housing only ever go into the Housing Revenue Account.

 

The four year rent reduction has had a significant impact on the HRA business plan which was predicted on the formula rent settlement as directed by Central Government of increasing rents by CPI plus 1% each year.  As such the loss to the HRA is not just the 1% rent decrease but also the 2% or potentially higher increase which was forecast each year.  Every year of loss is compounded giving rise to a forecast total loss of around £8 million in the short term.  And £105 million, that’s £105 million, over the 30 year life of the plan and that’s just based on that four years 1% rent reduction.

 

As measured by the recent star tenants’ survey, customer satisfaction at 95.6% this is amongst the highest within the housing sector and whilst many savings have been made within housing through the return of the ALMO and internal service reviews the Housing Department cannot continue delivering the same high level of service after suffering such a, such a high level of income loss.  Currently projections suggest all the HRA reserves will be fully utilised in 2027, with the service being unsustainable thereafter.

 

Reserves that are not cash cannot be used for anything other than housing.  A fact that some newly elected and even the more experienced councillors seem not to be able to grasp.  Services provided specifically for the upkeep of housing assets and service which sit outside or beyond the remit of the core rent can be charged for.  Where such services are non-specific to all tenants, rather than just a few tenants they become an amenity charge as opposed to a service charge.

 

One should also not lose sight of the fact that with the on-set of Universal Credit the expectation is that tenants struggle to pay their rent on time, if at all.  As such this could result in further loss of income to the HRA whilst having to also expend more in staffing costs to support the customers to get through the welfare changes and make ends meet, whilst still paying their rent.

 

Finally, it is a key aspiration of my Council to build and provide additional much needed affordable properties within the District.  Unless the Council acts now there will be no money for new properties.  No money to replace right to buy properties and the Council will be handing back over £300,000 per annum to Central Government in unspent right to buy receipts.  Simply because it could not source money to utilise them in a building programme in Ashfield.  I don’t want that.  Labour don’t want that.  Maybe you do Jason?”

 

In accordance with Council Procedure Rule 13.5, Councillor Zadrozny was invited to ask a supplementary question as follows:-

 

“Thank you Chair and yes I do.  I, I would like to thank the Leader for her very long and detailed response.  I think I would like to concentrate my supplementary on, on the confidence of the rest of the Group which was the crux of my question really though because clearly the strategy doesn’t have the confidence of us or the public.  If the Leader does think that she has the full confidence of the Labour Group perhaps she’d like to explain to the Chamber why on the 9th of November when there was a closed Labour Group meeting to decide their future financial strategy for the Council, only 9 of the 22 members wanted to turn up and take part in it and 13 didn’t.” 

 

The Leader of the Council again responded as follows:-

“Okay.  Yes I do have the confidence of my Group.  There are always various reasons people can’t turn up and the majority of them had actually submitted apologies which were accepted.  Part of my role as Leader is to advocate for Ashfield.  To do my best for Ashfield.  To make Ashfield the best place it can be to live, work and socialise.  I’m not here to play up to the electorate by jumping on bandwagons to gain me votes.  I’m here to do what’s right, fair and transparent.

 

Along with my Group, my Cabinet and I have made brave, bold decisions that ensure Ashfield doesn’t miss out, gets the best and aspires to be the best.  I don’t have an ego to massage.  I put Ashfield first because it is the right thing to do.  Tenants are losing out in Ashfield because of this Government.  You’re once again helping them by attempting to smear our initiative and decisions and our Group as we try to move Ashfield forward.

 

I’m proud that our recycling rates are up because we introduced the new bins.  Grateful that we offer free swimming to under 17’s.  Thankful that by giving one hour free parking we’ve helped increase footfall to our town centres and along the way helped our small and local businesses.  Encouraged that our streets are cleaner because of the measures Labour have introduced only recently have been showing figures that tell us dog fouling services are notably down.  Delighted that we have built award winning new homes and renovated many empty properties for new tenants to move into.  Excited by the forthcoming brand new leisure centre being built right here in Kirkby to complement our award winning Lammas Leisure Centre and Hucknall Leisure Centre.  The list of our achievements with me as Leader goes on and I’ll write to you Jason just so that you are aware of all of them.

 

However one of my biggest and proudest achievements is that of the Selective Landlord Licensing Scheme where we’ve improved the lives of so many people, and saved lives in some cases, made a difference.  Having this amenity charge will also help to sustain improvements for our tenants.  In real terms no-one will lose out financially or environmentally if this charge is agreed.  To finish a rhetorical question, what would you do Jason, spend, spend, spend like previously in your very short, one and only, never to be repeated stint as Leader of Ashfield and not give a care about what you leave behind for the rest of us to pick up.  Then just continue to oppose for opposition’s sake.  Shame on you.”

 

Question 3

From Councillor Tom Hollis:

 

“Nottinghamshire County Council announced at a recent committee that they expect garden waste recycling in the Ashfield District to be reduced by around 50% when charging for garden bin collections begins.  With the Council's commitment to improving recycling rates - does the Portfolio Holder for Environment feel that this is a retrograde step towards this?”

 

Councillor Tim Brown, Portfolio Holder for Environment, responded as follows:-

 

“Thank you for continuing to highlight the need for a sustainable waste management system.  Recycling is important for the future residents of Ashfield, providing a free garden waste service for a two year period was an important step in enabling residents to try our excellent garden waste recycling service.

 

A question was asked at Nottinghamshire County Council’s Communities and Place Committee on Thursday the 30th of November, 2017, regarding the garden waste and expectations once the two year free period ends at the end of this season.  The question included the statement of reducing recycling rate by 40% next year which doesn’t represent any modelling done or decisions taken by this Council.  In 2015 this Council, with the support of Nottinghamshire County Council, implemented a free garden waste service for two years by reducing the costs of disposal and repurposing bin containers for garden waste use. 

 

By comparing to other authorities who had a temporary free period garden waste service, officers were able to model a plan for the reintroduction of the charge.  Modelling takes into account waste collected during the free period and expected amounts of waste after the charge is reintroduced.  This has remained consistent throughout the project.

 

Recycling rates have topped at 52% during the summer months and predictions from my officers is that the recycling rate will stabilise at around 49% by the end of this calendar year.  The project aim was to increase our recycling rate by 14% during the free periods and then by 11% thereafter.  The model took into account that of the 54,000 households currently using the free service around 40% would choose to subscribe to the service which is approximately 22,000 subscribers.  There are currently four times more subscribers at any same period as last time the service was charged and the Council is confident in sustaining an increase recycling rate going forward.

 

Far from being a retrograde step, this policy is actually progressive in achieving an amazing increase in our recycling rate, saving the Authority money and making this Council a leader in tackling environmental impact.”

 

In accordance with Council Procedure Rule 13.5, Councillor Hollis was invited to ask a supplementary question as follows:-

 

“Clearly the Cabinet Member is aware that Nottinghamshire County Council are the ones that are responsible for the overall recycling rate, not Ashfield.  We just pay a part to it.  The figures that Councillor Rostance, Councillor Knight and myself, who represent Ashfield on that Committee for recycling targets, heard was that before the change was introduced 22,000 people or households were signed up to receiving their garden waste bin, we’ve heard tonight that now only 2,500 of those have re-signed….22,500 to 2,500 have signed up.  Of course there’s going to be a reduction in the garden waste recycling based on that and does he feel that this is a retrograde step based that we’ve only got just over 10% of people re-signed up.  Thank you Chairman.

 

The Portfolio Holder for Environment again responded as follows:-

 

“Yes, just for clarification we didn’t have 22,000 subscribers we had 16,000.  So the figures are wrong.  The 40% reduction is that we expect only 40% to drop from the 54,000 that currently get it free.  So it will drop down to 22%.  So that’s where the figures come from.  I think again what’s getting confusing here is that this Chamber is actually discussing issues that are actually taking place at County Hall.

 

The figures in the statement that you’ve actually said bear no relation to the modelling and the discussions that we’re having at this Authority.  I think to throw in figures that are misleading and confusing doesn’t help the matter as well.  The 40% figure is saying that 40% of the people who have had the free garden waste will not continue to do so and that will take us to 22,000.”

 

Question 4

From Councillor Tom Hollis:

 

“Does the Portfolio Holder think that it is appropriate to publish a 'Manifesto Pledge Tracker' in a tax-payer funded magazine?  Does she regret it accidentally publishing false information about garden waste collections and what action has she taken to rectify this?”

 

Councillor Jackie James, Portfolio Holder for Corporate Services, responded as follows:-

 

“Thank you so much for the question.  This is the second time tonight that I’ve been shocked but just on the basis of that the Manifesto Pledge was part of the Leader’s communication and not part of my communication.  So you’re asking me a question about someone else’s communication.  But also I’m actually not responsible under my Portfolio for Corporate Communication.  That is the Leader but I’m happy to take one for the team and answer your question.

 

In terms of the two questions that you’ve asked….so is it appropriate to publish a Manifesto Pledge Tracker?  I’m not responsible for vetting what the Leader of the Council decides when she communicates with the public and in terms of is it regrettable that I accidentally published or that there’s been accidental publication of false information or a typo….Yes.” 

 

In accordance with Council Procedure Rule 13.5, Councillor Hollis was invited to ask a supplementary question as follows:-

 

“I overheard the Leader say it’s her Council but I would remind Councillor James that it’s actually her responsibility as Cabinet Member for Corporate Services, I’m just, honestly Chairman, I’m just going to take a moment to think about the process of what I’ve just heard.  That she’s taking taxpayers money to do that job but it’s not her responsibility.  I’m just struggling with that. 

 

The supplementary question I’d like to ask Councillor James is, will broken promises be included in the next publication?  I mean we’ve heard about the things you’ve done but we’ve not heard about things like the Kirkby swimming pool and I’d just like to know if this…if we are going to ask the taxpayers to pay for your Labour Party manifestos?  I mean we have an update leaflet paid for by our volunteers for that but will broken promises be included in the next one like the swimming pool.  Thank you Chairman.”

 

The Portfolio Holder for Corporate Services again responded as follows:-

 

“Just for clarification, Corporate Communications from this organisation are the responsibility of the Leader but as I’ve said I’m more than happy to answer your question Councillor Hollis and I am more than happy to take one for the team because like you I’m a Councillor and representing the public, the Council.

 

In terms of your supplementary question around broken promises well that’s a really interesting one isn’t it because I don’t think you know looking back to promises that have been made in previous elections, I don’t think that we’re the only administration that’s ever promised a swimming pool so my question back or my muse back to that is … did you?

 

So when you were putting up for election did your administration when you all re-stood….because you all made those promises last time….did you say that you’d made those broken promises? 

 

So just to re-clarify my question or my muse as I sat here and listened to Tom’s supplementary question.  Was it when some of the people or some of the Councillors in this Chamber have been re-elected and they have been previously the Leaders of the Council and in power and they did make promises around swimming pools….my thoughts were.…did they publicise those when they were going out to the public and trying to get re-elected?  They were just some muses that I had as I was sitting here.

 

Question 5

From Councillor Helen-Ann Smith:

 

“At the recent Cabinet Meeting, the Council decided to scrap Area Consultative Committees and to scrap member grants. Does she feel that this is a backwards step towards devolution, is increasing centralisation at this Council and is a slap in the face for communities across this District who value attending these meetings?”

 

Councillor Cheryl Butler, Leader of the Council, responded as follows:-

 

“No, not at all, I’m excited by the prospect of the changes we are about to implement.  It is very much a forward step into more diverse and inclusive ways of engaging with our communities. For too long I have sat in Area Committee meetings with the same few members of public, skipping past carefully drawn up reports because Members just want to get home or want to just criticise the police, or are trying to make political mischief. I’ve known Members of the opposition come in for the 2 minutes it takes to sign in and then leave!  The residents of Ashfield deserve much better than this.

 

I assume that Councillor Smith has read the Cabinet report, which went into a very good level of detail about our current and proposed future arrangements. In particular it provided compelling research about why we do need to change.  In particular, as a result of our last budget consultation we know that 93% of our population haven’t heard of Area Committees or haven’t ever attended.  She will know that they are now quite poorly attended and unfortunately do not represent our diverse population.

 

Added to this was the expert advice from the Local Government Association, a Peer Review and what residents actually told us during the budget consultation.  Also, if you have taken the time to read the Peer Review, you will know that Members of the opposition, some in your group, also advocated a change and cessation of the Area Committees. You will appreciate that as a result of all of this, we have to apply a much wider range of approaches.  One size no longer fits all.

 

Some of the comments from residents were very informative, and for that I would like to put my thanks to them on record.  They told us to get smarter in terms of IT, social media, street surgeries, web based communication and

e-mails.   We are acting upon these suggestions already.  None of them demanded more evening meetings.

 

The decision to cease Area Committees will enable us to greatly expand our methods of engagement.  These changes put the onus firmly on us, the Members, to go out to our residents. It will help us to go to the people in a variety of different ways and not to expect them always to come to us.  This includes expanding our engagement into new digital areas.  For example, as Councillor Anderson has already alluded to this evening, a live streaming of a Crime and Disorder Committee on 10th October, which attracted nearly 4,000 unique views and 155 comments.

 

Turning now to the Member grants, it is true that these will no longer be granted through the Area Committees.  No longer will they be able to be used for political purposes either.  However, I’m delighted to say that we will be continuing to provide grants for small community groups.   It is our intention that these will be granted through a new partnership with the Nottinghamshire Community Foundation.

 

So our contribution of £15,000 per year will continue to be ring fenced for the benefit of Ashfield groups.  In fact, the Foundation has access to a whole range of other grant funding and can therefore assist groups and direct them into other grants that they may be able to access that gives them more money for their groups and for their causes.  Groups will be signposted to these through our website, through communication with officers and through e-mails.

 

Alongside this I have agreed that £7,000 will continue to be allocated to our Christmas Festivals, a further £4,000 has been put aside to help fund, amongst other things, Remembrance Parade traffic management orders.  I have also very recently instructed officers to allocate an additional £4,000 in 2018, so we can sponsor and support the 100 year anniversary of the end of WWI.

 

In summary, our plans represent a forward step to greater engagement with a much more diverse range of our local residents. I am excited by the changes and I hope that all Members will embrace them, for the benefit of all of our residents.”

 

In accordance with Council Procedure Rule 13.5, Councillor Smith was invited to ask a supplementary question as follows:-

 

“Yes, thank you Chairman.  Leader, I’m not quite sure how your Area Committee Group worked; I know in the Sutton area and the Hucknall area we tend to get quite a lot of representatives from the public and it’s a really good way for the public to communicate with us and ask questions of Councillors in a much less formal setting.  Yes, you can ask questions at full Council but it’s a more formal setting and people get put off by that and I don’t think we should be taking away something that gives them the opportunity to speak to us.

 

You are absolutely right in something that you did say; as part of that review we did say that things needed to change with the Area Groups, I’m not disputing that fact at all but what we actually said was that the Area Groups shouldn’t be taken away but should be given extra powers.  For example, things like planning should be devolved down to the local areas and for members of the public to hear everything that is going on. 

 

So my question is….do you not agree with me that that would make a better solution rather than scrapping the Area Groups, to change the way that they do work and devolve power back down to the different areas by changing the way that the Committees work and allowing these to look at things like the different planning applications, different licensing applications and letting these groups continue to fund groups in their areas.  We all know there’s different groups that operate differently and need different amounts of money.

 

We all know our individual groups, we know what the groups in Sutton need and I think we need it back down to that, do you not agree with me?”

 

The Leader of the Council again responded as follows:-

 

“It is not my understanding that attendance is good anywhere else.  I’ve heard that Hucknall does tend to have the most people attending but my understanding is that not really anywhere else is any different to Kirkby….so that’s obviously a different understanding.

 

We have agreed to twice annual meetings within each area so there are still opportunities for members of the public to come and they will be more topic specific rather that a general just come and see what’s happening and perhaps a question and answer session like we already have.

 

You talk about widening the powers, that to me is going back to when we had urban and town councils and that is a backward step as we are Ashfield District Council.  With regard to planning, that’s been mentioned before and in my understanding when I’d looked at it, it had been suggested that there was a possibility of predetermination that could come out of it because you’ve had people there and you could have made promises etc.  So, we all have to be careful as you know about predetermination on planning applications and I actually think that it’s a backward step for what your suggestion is.

 

Groups, you talk about the grants, there is nothing stopping a group approaching any one of us and saying we’d like funding for this and then there is nothing stopping us helping them with the Community Foundation project…..helping them put their application together.  Obviously, the Foundation will help them anyway and like I said they are likely to be able to access even more money and it’ll hone down into exactly what they are looking for which will then leave more money left for other groups for the allocation that we have put forward, so I think that’s a positive step forward.  I don’t believe that groups are going to miss out and I will be advocating to any groups that approach me to go there.”

 

(During consideration of Member questions, Councillors Cathy Mason and Chris Baron left the room at 8.07 p.m. and 8.18 p.m. and returned to the meeting at 8.09 p.m. and 8.21 p.m. respectively.  Councillors Glenys Maxwell, John Knight and Kevin Rostance also left the meeting at 8.07 p.m., 8.18 p.m. and 8.30 p.m.)

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